While we were having lunch today, my dear friend Don Quixote asked “Do you think Barack Obama is evil?”
I hedged. “That’s an interesting question. Why do you ask?”
“I’m getting the feeling,” he answered, “that conservatives are starting to define Obama as being evil. At least, that’s the impression I get from the emails my father sends me.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not comfortable with the word evil. However, if you define evil as someone who has a personality disorder, who is a malignant narcissist, or even a sociopath, then I guess I would say he’s evil. However, to me, evil is a very fraught word, with a lot of . . . um . . . theological connotations.”
DQ picked up from there and said he thought the word “evil” was being overused and devalued. “For one thing,” he said, “contrary to the grinning Hollywood maniac, the type who delights in his own malevolence, most evil people in real life are driven by good intentions. They think they’re doing the right thing.”
“Careful,” I said. “What you’re saying sounds a lot like moral relativity.”
“No,” he replied. “I’m not excusing what they’re doing by saying that one man’s evil is another man’s good. Their acts are still evil. But their motives may be ordinary or even, in their own minds, good.”
You can tell, can’t you, why I love having lunch with DQ? There is no one else with whom I can have deep philosophical questions about the nature of good and evil.
Even when lunch ended, my thoughts about evil kept going and going. (Indeed, I warned DQ that I’d almost certainly write a post on the subject.)
The big question, of course, is “what is evil?” Go check out the word in the dictionary and you get what amount to a series of synonyms. Evil is immoral, wrong, bad, wicked, etc. All true, but that really doesn’t take you anywhere. When I think about evil, I have two mental definitions. The first is a theological one, where evil represents the absence of God’s goodness or justice. Simplistically, evil is the anti-God. In that sense, I’ve never imagined the Devil as some personified being, with or without a tail and horns. Instead, evil is the absence of everything that is moral as defined by the Judeo-Christian tradition. But that’s still an abstract. What is evil in practice?
And now I get to my second definition. I think evil is the furthest end of the scale of “bad.” If you imagine a line with neutral acts at one end, and the worst kind of acts at the other end, that furthest end would bear the label evil. That’s why not all war time leaders are evil, but Hitler is.
War is a human condition (whether the peaceniks like it or not). During war, people, even ordinary, normally good people, do bad acts. When war ends, most people resume their normal lives, and put behind them the barbarity, the cruelty, that war brings out. I come by this belief honestly. Although she spent four years suffering terribly in Japanese concentration camps in Java, my mother never bore a grudge against the Japanese. “It was war,” she said. “Bad things happened. Even though they were cruel to us, and didn’t care if we lived or died, they weren’t committing genocide against us, the way the Germans did.”
And my mother is absolutely right. Hitler expanded to realms hitherto unknown the scope of ordinary wartime cruelty and death dealing. Under his aegis, and in response to his desires and imagination, a nation embarked on a concerted, mechanized killing spree the likes of which had never before been seen. The scope of his enterprise was so large that it no longer could possibly fall within DQ’s theory that many evil people actually think they’re acting appropriately or for the best, or under my Mom’s theory that war is always Hell. Hitler and his minions deviated so far from the scale of human behavior — even human behavior in the worst of times — that they clearly qualified as “evil.”
The same holds true for Stalin and Mao. Their defenders can argue that they were simply doing what was necessary to advance their political ideologies, hold their countries together, bring their citizens into the future (or, at minimum, into the present), update their economies, or whatever other apologetics these followers’ fertile minds can devise. But none of that excuses the scope what Stalin and Mao did. As Dennis Prager explains, we in the West may be forgiving because they visited their excesses on their own people, but the fact remains that they committed their abuses on an unimaginable scale. Best guesses for Russian deaths under Stalin are about 20-30 million; for Mao, up to 70 million. No good intentions can explain away that road to Hell. That is evil.
Evil can also exist with smaller numbers, but heinous acts that are outside the pale of even the worst kind of behavior humans ordinarily commit. Although the major papers gave it scant coverage, decent people were aware of the unbearable acts of cruelty that four men and one woman committed in connection with the murders of Hugh Christopher Newsom, age 23, and Channon Gail Christian, age 21:
While Channon was forced to watch, her boyfriend was raped prison style and then his penis was cut off. He was later driven to nearby railroad tracks where he was shot and set afire. But Channon’s hell was just beginning. She was beaten; gang raped repeatedly in many ways, had one of her breasts cut off and bleach poured down her throat to destroy DNA evidence-all while she was still alive. To add to Channon’s degradation the suspects took turns urinating on her. They too set her body afire, apparently inside the residence, but for some reason left her body there-in five separate trash bags.
That may not be 70, 20 or 6 million dead, but that is two people dead in a way that is an utter repudiation of all humanity. Heck, even animals are more humane when they kill. Although the murders of Newsom and Christian were small in number, in scope they established the actors as irredeemably, absolutely evil. Those four people (and the word people has to be used lightly in connection with those hideous life forms) broke even the most tenuous bonds they might have had with basic civilization.
With those thoughts in mind — with a definition of evil as the committing of ordinary bad acts on a scale that should be unimaginable (i.e., the stuff only of nightmares) — I cannot say that Obama is evil. I can apply all sorts of negative descriptions to him (arrogant, ill-informed, thoughtless, unkind, selfish, willful, morally obtuse), but he is not evil.
To say that he Obama is not evil does not mean that I don’t fear the acts he is committing. I do not know whether he deliberately intends to provoke America’s downfall or whether his arrogance and commitment to his ideology prevent him from recognizing that his acts will lead to that downfall. Nevertheless, whatever is currently motivating him, he has not left the pale of humanity. Currently, he’s still just a politico with some damn bad ideas — but ideas that have defined Europe (which is quite a functional, and often a very civil, society) for decades. Obama may in future commit acts that are genuinely evil because they go beyond the pale of ordinary humanity, but he has not yet done so.
This is an important point. Conservatives devalue their arguments against Obama’s policy if they start throwing the word “evil” around. While that may work with the converted, it frightens the vast middle. Rather than looking like wise men (and women) with a better plan, conservatives start looking like wild-eyed street corner prophets. We may be right, but no one will listen.
One of the most important things young lawyers learn (or, at least, should learn), is not to use ad hominem attacks against opposing counsel. If your opposing counsel is indeed dishonest (which is usually the direction ad attacks take), you get much further with the Court if you provide proof of that dishonesty, and then let the Court draw the obvious conclusion itself. Calling opposing counsel names denies the Court the necessary proof and merely makes you look bad.
In our discussions about Obama and the Democrats, we should make sure that we lead our readers to the truth. Let them draw the ultimate negative conclusions. As Socrates knew, a lesson is always learned better if the student has his own epiphany, rather than having a point, no matter how good it is, forced down his throat.
Cross-posted at Right Wing News